2012 Ford Explorer Road Test

The 2012 Ford Explorer gets it backwards, offering a big-truck exterior with a small-truck interior.

What It Is
The latest version of Ford's ubiquitous seven-passenger family hauler gives up off-road pretense for on-road comfort.
Best Thing
Impressive styling inside and out.
Worst Thing
Surprisingly small interior for such a big vehicle.
Snap Judgment
A mixed bag, the Explorer has a lot going for it, but some big demerits as well.

Let's say you go to McDonalds. You look up at the menu marquee, see a photo of a big, juicy Big Mac bursting with meat, lettuce and condiments, and order one. They hand you a big box with the words "BIG MAC" on the top, leaving you to think: "Wow, this is going to be a pretty good-sized burger."

Then you open the box, and rattling around inside is a miniaturized version of what you saw above your order-taker's head. The box matches your expectations, but what's inside is so shrunken that no matter what you think of the taste, you're ultimately disappointed.

And that's the problem with the 2012 Ford Explorer. From the outside, Ford's biggest crossover looks like a substantial package. Its exterior dimensions put it in the upper half of its class; it's longer and wider than the Honda Pilot, which is already pretty big. But get inside, and the Explorer is smaller, with less cargo space, and less room for passengers than the Honda, too.

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It's weird and offputting, and a shame, too, because there are a lot of things to like about the Explorer. It's pretty comfortable, offers just about every convenience you can imagine (and maybe a few you can't), and it looks cool inside and out. But that disconnect between the Explorer's exterior bulk and interior coziness constantly intrudes on your consciousness, like the hunger you still feel after eating your insubstantial Big Mac. No matter what we thought about the 2012 Ford Explorer, the oddly confining interior was an Achilles' heel, and for some of us, a deal killer.

What We Drove

Our all-wheel drive 2012 Ford explorer Limited had a base price of $40,680, including the $825 destination charge. Of course, you can get into an Explorer for less than that, but you'll miss out on a lot of the Limited's standard leather upholstery, fold-flat third row, dual-zone climate control, adjustable pedals, kickin' Sony audio system, reverse sensors and backup camera, plus a bunch of other features. Our tester included an extra helping of options, primarily the $5,310 "Equipment Group 302A," which added voice-activated navigation, a power liftgate and power-folding third row, better leather on the seats, rain sensing wipers, and high-intensity discharge headlights. It also added a few safety features: inflatable seatbelts for the outboard second-row passengers; adaptive cruise control and collision warning, and active parking assist. Throw in a $570 trailer towing package and $595 worth of 20-inch polished aluminum wheels -- and take away $810 in equipment package savings -- and you wind up with a total price of $46,345.

Safety is paramount to family haulers, and federal crash tests give the Explorer an overall rating of four stars, while the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety marks it a Top Safety Pick. The Explorer also comes standard with anti-lock brakes, stability control, and airbags in the front, side, ceiling, and seat bolsters. In the event of an accident, it automatically alerts emergency response teams as well.

The Commute

If you're like most people when you drive, you don't constantly have your hands at the 10-and-2 positions on the steering wheel. If you're stuck in traffic, you'll have one hand on the wheel, and the other resting on the door armrest, or maybe on top of the door itself.

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Unless you're driving the 2012 Ford Explorer.

It's as if Ford put the interior for a smaller car inside the Explorer. For example, try to rest your elbow on the door, and you realize it's surprisingly far away, leading to a yoga-like contortion just to reach it. Once you notice that, you start noticing that the interior is shrunk in other ways, too. For example, the center console bin's lid is narrower than the one in a Honda Accord. Sure, there's plenty of headroom, and your legs won't lack for space either. But if you carpool, you'll discover that the second row is really better suited to two passengers, and not three, as the Explorer's width suggests. As for the third row? Save it for the kids.

The oddly small interior also makes the Explorer feel even bulkier than it already is. When changing lanes, for example, you'll rely heavily on the blind-spot indicators since the rear visibility is so bad, yet not quite trusting them thanks to the bulk. Don't be surprised if you find yourself tailgating less as well, thanks to the long hood and thick windshield pillars.

The cramped bulkiness is really a shame, because there's a lot to like in the Explorer. MyFord Touch offers up a compelling combination of features and ease of use, not the least of which was a very good Sony audio system to take your mind off things. Most of us found it easy to sync a Bluetooth phone, although at least one of us had to force the issue after calling the MyFord Touch hotline; even then, the phone had to be re-synced each time. Still, Ford's recent revisions to the system definitely help its ease of use, and the displays are big and clear. The suspension was comfortable at low speeds, and the V-6 engine and six-speed automatic transmission get the big crossover moving quickly enough to keep up with traffic, although "leisurely" best describes acceleration. There is good storage everywhere, the cupholders are decently sized, and there's even enough room behind the rear seats for everyone's backpacks, briefcases, or whatever else gets hauled around during your drive time.

The Grocery Run

This is, again, another area where the 2012 Ford Explorer's girth penalizes what should otherwise be a pretty compelling vehicle. It's not that it's hard to park, but you think it's going to be hard to park, and that perception leads you to overcompensate when parking, so instead of being too far to the right, for example, you're too far left. We'd just chalk it up to familiarization, but other large vehicles haven't required such a long get-used-to-it learning curve.

Open the power hatch, and there's a decent amount of room behind the third row for groceries. The Explorer has a minivan-like cargo well behind the seats, making it easier to load a large amount of groceries without fear of them spilling onto the ground when you get home. If your shopping escapades veer into palette-sized selections, the Explorer's power-folding third row stows quickly, and the resulting floor is handy for large or long objects; fold just half of it to retain some of the cargo well if you need to.

There's plenty of room in the second row for a couple of booster or LATCH-equipped child seats, but there's a caveat. This particular Explorer came with Ford's new inflating seatbelts on the two outboard second-row seat positions. The award-winning technology literally puts an airbag inside the shoulder strap of the belt, inflating in an accident to prevent rib and shoulder injuries. The problem is the tongue that you insert into the seat-mounted buckle. It's bulky and difficult for kids to use. In addition, the tongue anchors to the belt, rather than sliding through it, adding another layer of complexity to strapping in, and also making the belt just plain uncomfortable for kids.

The third row is reliably comfortable for kids, but getting back there is a hassle. The Explorer's seats don't slide out of the way. Rather, you fold the seatback, then tilt the entire seat forward. It's heavy for adults, nearly impossible for kids, and the 60/40 split means one side is significantly heavier than the other. At least the resulting space when the seat is flipped forward is big enough for the kids to crawl through, and the conventional seatbelts are easier to use.

The Weekend Fun

With seating for seven, decent cargo space, an excellent audio system and a bunch of other family-friendly features, you'd think the 2012 Ford Explorer would be a great choice for weekend excursions. However, as with so many things related to the Explorer it's only so-so, but for different reasons this time.

The Explorer's suspension soaks up bumps on the Interstate, but keeping it straight requires more concentration than it should. The steering feels vague in your hands, and you find yourself making constant small corrections as you roll in a supposedly straight line. If the highway bends, you'll have to pay more attention than you expect trying to keep in your own lane. The engine also struggled getting the big Ford up to highway speeds. Not exactly slow, the Explorer definitely could use an extra boost of horsepower. Strangely, Ford doesn't offer the turbocharged Ecoboost version of this V-6 in the Explorer, as it does in the Ford Flex, which uses much of the same basic architecture.

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There's a lot to like about the Explorer's weekender capabilities, though. The active cruise control is easy to set up and use, and the big crossover is definitely quiet on the road. The all-wheel drive system actually offers up more off-road capability than you might expect, and if the dirt trail your on gets a bit more rutted than you expected, a quick turn of the drive mode selection knob will probably get you out of trouble.

Despite the little-guy-in-an-oversized-shirt interior, the seats themselves are quite comfortable, and there's plenty of headroom for virtually everybody. However, some features were conspicuous by their absence, especially considering our test vehicle's $46,000 price. Want to let the sun shine down on your head? Too bad; the sunroof's going to cost you $1,595 extra. How about settling the kids down with a movie? Sorry, the rear seat entertainment system adds another $1,995 to the price, and since the screens are mounted on the front-seat headrests, it's basically useless for anybody sitting in the third row. Add them both and you've pushed your Explorer's price to more than $50,000. On the other hand, if your weekend activities include towing a trailer, you're in luck, as the Explorer has a towing capacity of 5,000 pounds, and the towing package adds only $570.


We're faced with a conundrum with this vehicle. On one hand, it offers up a lot of features, the seats are comfortable, it drives pretty well, and so on. If you know what you're getting into -- or just happen to be a wide enough person where the oddly proportioned interior doesn't bother you -- then the Explorer can be a good pick. But the question many of us were left with is, why pick it? You get more room and just as much stuff in several other vehicles, such as the aforementioned Honda Pilot, or the Dodge Durango.

But at the end of the day, we never quite fell in love with the Explorer. Like that undersized Big Mac, it's ultimately disappointing after you open the box, even if you're a fan of two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions on a sesame-seed bun. With so many other options out there -- Ford's own Flex comes to mind -- we'd pass.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $46,345 Fuel Economy EPA City:17 mpg EPA Highway: 23 mpg EPA Combined: 19 mpg Estimated Combined Range: 353 miles Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Below Average

Notebook Quotes

"Where the Explorer really surprised me was with its handling and the tight turning radius. I had to stuff the Explorer into an apartment complex that's laid-out like a horseshoe, and the only way in and out was through a 90-degree angle turn. The Explorer was able to squeeze through unscathed and needless to say, I was impressed." -Trevor Dorchies, Associate Editor
"Ford numbed the experience of driving the Exploder down so much that I wondered at times where my wheels were going. Between that and the mismanaged packaging, I'm firmly in the camp of anything but this." -Jacob Brown, Associate Editor
"I thought the Explorer was very nice, albeit way overpriced. I didn't get the feeling that I was sitting far inboard. In fact, I felt it was roomy, spacious, and soft and comfortable." -Jason Davis, Associate Editor


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